With a steam (later diesel) powered whale catcher
boat, coming up behind the whale was a much easier task than previously,
but still not so straightforward as might be assumed. The whale might
dive for many minutes at a time and surface any where about, the engine
speeding up to reach the whale would alert it and it may dive again,
the process could and did often continue for many hours like this with
no guarantee of being able to catch that particular whale.
But ultimately of course the odds were stacked greatly
in the whalers favour and the whale was in the gunners sights and the
harpoon released. The conditions shown here are close to ideal for the
gunner with a virtually flat sea so neither the boat nor whale were
rising and falling with the waves and little or no wind to make the
sea surface choppy.
Despite the apparently huge target, it was not so
easy to harpoon a baleen whale efficiently so as to ensure a rapid kill.
The harpoon needed to hit the whale just behind the last rib so that
it would go forwards into the body cavity and explode amongst the vital
Too far forwards and it would hit a rib so causing
it to explode on the surface of the whale, not an immediately fatal
or debilitating blow and more crucially, not anchoring the whale with
the harpoons flukes. Too far backwards and there was the possibility
that the harpoon would shoot straight through the muscle mass leading
to the tail and come out the other side, so attaching the whale boat
to an agonized, but now enraged and barely debilitated whale. If the
harpoon struck too far forwards and hit the skull, it would simply bounce
Very few whales were killed first time, over decades
of whaling, the average number of harpoons it took to kill a baleen
whale was 2.8.
There was danger for the whalers crew at this time
too. Huge amounts of strong thick rope would play out as the whale sped
off. Sometimes despite the enormous strength of the rope it snapped,
the sudden release of many tons of force on a rope maybe 6 inches in
diameter caused it to slash backwards to the boat. If an unfortunate
crew member was caught by this rope it could easily smash bone and flesh
to a pulp.
Sometimes the whale would not swim off forwards, but
would dive and go sideways or backwards, the rope could get caught around
the propeller or be fouled in some other way causing the rope to need
to be cut. The only relatively safe way of cutting a rope under huge
strain was to turn the boat so that the rope was turned partly around
a bollard. Then a crew member - usually the gunner as he would be captain
and had ultimate responsibility for the catcher boat - would cut the
rope. This was accomplished by standing on the bollard and hitting the
rope with as hard a blow as possible with the largest and sharpest axe
available. All other crew were well out of the way of the flailing rope
and the man who cut the rope was at the eye of the "storm".
This account of the killing
of a rorqual is taken from:
A. J. "Whaling in the Frozen South" 1925 - An account written
by a journalist of the very first factory ship expedition to
Antarctica by the Sir James Clark Ross in the 1923/24
"At length, not a quarter of a mile from the
mothership, a big bull rose to blow less than twenty yards away,
directly in front of the waiting Star II's deadly gun.
Captain Iversen, who seemed possessed of an intuitive knowledge
of the movements of whales (hungry or otherwise) under water,
had been long waiting, maneuvering his ship for this chance,
and was standing ready on the little sparred platform behind
the cruel gray gun. His left hand grasped the metal stock which
swung the gun easily on its oiled bearings, and his right fore
finger lightly clasped the trigger. Quietly and surely he took
long and careful aim at the interminable gray flank turning
before him. At last his fore finger twitched ever so slightly,
and with a boom and a roar, a deluge of flying, twisted
pads, a reek of explosive, the great shell-pointed steel harpoon
flew out, and in a flurry of boiling foam the stricken leviathan
sounded deep into the depths, in a terrible effort to rid himself
of the burning steel. But his doom was sealed.
Despite the explosion in his body of the soft
iron shell with which the harpoon is tipped, the great monster
refused to die. As long as he could he remained below, struggling
madly to free himself, but at length he was forced to the surface
again for air. As he rose, the powerful winch on the Star
II quickly hove in the harpoon line, and as his great back
broke the surface of the sea the gun was loaded again and Captain
Iversen, standing like a waiting matador, was ready to administer
the death thrust. As the sorely wounded whale lay wallowing
and struggling in the bloodstained foam the captain carefully
trained his gun at the heaving target, and just as the bull
turned in a vain effort to dive again, lifting half of his great
bulk out of the water, the gun spoke once more and a second
harpoon flew into the mountain of blubber and flesh. Instantly
he sounded, the harpoon line running furiously over the bow-wheel.
But not for long. The second shot had told, and scarcely two
minutes later the great whale a mountain of death, suspended
on the harpoon line fathoms below the gently rippling surface.
And thus the first whale died.
Slowly we heaved it up to the surface, the
little ship worked alongside, compressed air was pumped into
the body, and a great chain passed around the small of its tail.
Then with her prize tightly clasped to her cold steel side Star
II slowly steamed to the mothership, and soon the white specked
blue-gray body lay gently heaving in the slight swell fast alongside,
the flukes of its tail cut off and two notches in what was left
telling that two harpoons were required to dispatch this great
monster of the sea.